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EDITH WHARTON'S POETICS OF TELECOMMUNICATION Aaron Worth Boston University We learn in the autobiographical A Backward Glance that the sixyear -old Edith Jones spent agooddealofthe winter of1868 shouting into her maternal grandmother's ear-trumpet. This prosthesis, supplying the emphatic period ofa catalogue ofobjects metonymically invoking Mary Stevens Rhinelander, seems indeed virtually to define her: she is introduced as a kind ofassemblage made up of"lace cap and lappets, a bunch of gold charms dangling from her massive watch-chain ... a rich black silk dress, and a black japanned ear-trumpet at her ear." As Wharton makes clear, the trumpet was not, from the perspective ofher childhood self, merely one ornament or appendage among others. First, it supplied the old woman with a characterizing action: "for me she exists only as a motionless and gently smilingfigure, whose one gesture was to lay aside her stitching for her ear-trumpet at my approach." At the same time it would serve for those months, in an experience that clearly stuck in her memory, as a privileged channel, intensely charged with affect, for Wharton'syouthful exploration oflanguage and poetry. She would "shout" Tennyson verses, more enthralled by the sound than cognizant of the sense, "for hours . . . through the trumpet of my long-suffering ancestress ," even though the unreliable nature ofthe medium linking them, coupled with a shared incomprehension ofthe poet, ensure a highly ambivalent act ofcommunication: "the rhythmic raptures tingling through me probablywoke no echo inthe dear old head bent to mine."1 It is a poignant, even emblematic, image of the future writer, for whom a powerful "striving for communication" would constitute an abiding motive force.2 1 want to focus here on the figure ofthe trumpet itself, as a kind ofzero-degree instrument ofmediation, a technological copula that both enables communication and renders itproblematic, mingling it inextricably with miscommunication. It is a medium that both connects and separates, a source ofdistortion and frustration but also the condition of possibility for any intimacy at all (particularly as Wharton's grandmother was the only member of her family who would submit to such sessions). Media have a similarly ambivalent status in Wharton's fiction. Technologies and networks ofcommunication, and other figures ofmediation, loom large in her work, from the notes and cards whose ritualistic circu- 96Aaron Worth lation serves as visible index of the recondite, "hieroglyphic world" of Wharton's "Society" to the postal, telegraphic, and telephonic networks that sustain or subvert that world (as well as the human relays, couriers, and go-betweens to be found there). While she may not have centered an entireworkoffictionexplicitlyand exclusivelyupona single such technology , as did her friend Henry James in his novella In the Cage, she certainly accorded them a prominent place in her novels and stories, where they frequently serve as occasions for, or indices of, miscommunication and distortion as well as human contact and the transfer ofinformation. In part, the prominence and treatment ofmedia in Wharton's fiction reflect the times in which she lived. She was witness to a series of crucial developments in the growth ofmodern media technologies, as well as the penetration and integration ofthose technologies into the social and cultural life ofthe nation. She was born into atelegraphic world, and not yet a globally linked one (there had been a failed transatlantic cable-laying four years before her birth—dismissed by many as a hoax). Her life and career coincided with the worldwide expansion and consolidation ofthe telegraphic networks, as well as the emergence and evolution of other wired and wireless technologies: the telephone beginning in the 1870s, and the "wireless telegraph" from the early twentieth century (in her old age Wharton listened with horror to Hitler's voice on the radio). She died in 1937, one year after the BBC established its first television network (and only a few months after Alan Turing laid the foundations for the modern digital computer in an epoch-makingpaper). But Wharton's fascination with these technologies transcends any mere documentary fidelity. She was impressively attuned to the symbolic potential ofdifferent media, keenly alive to what Marshall McLuhan famously called their inherent "messages." Even as a child Wharton had a fascination with the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 95-121
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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